Fujino & The Future-proof Farms

New house in Fujino

A Call From the Farms of Fujino

There’s a small, organic farm in the Fujino district of Sagamihara run by a New Jersey guy named Byron called Kasamatsu Farms. Its pretty cool.

I first got in touch with Byron about 6 months ago. His name started popping up in business conversations at Tokyo cafés as well as at barbecues with  farmhands in Atami under the clear night sky. Once you’ve got that sorta rep going for you, expect me to show up at your door.

However, due to my local commitments, I couldn’t find the time to visit Kasamatsu in person. But I kept hearing great things, and Byron kept feeding me details, so last week I finally made it out to help with some tsuchikabe work. The timing could’ve been better, as I had only returned the previous day from a wee-long Kanto bike trek in 35+ degree weather, but I shrugged my aches off and said I’d be right up.

I’m still pretty impressed by how not completely wrecked I was from that trip.

The Long, Winding Road to the Farm

Kasamatsu is relatively out there, what I soon realized as I planned my trip. Getting to Fujino Station is a straight shot on the Chūo Line, so no issues with that, but it gets more difficult after that. The next leg is on bus, and there are only so many per day that approach the property. On that particular day, there were 2. One bus arrived around 9AM, and another at around 3PM. So that morning I set out at 6AM on an uncrowded train from Hamamatsuchō Station to lend my hand in building a house.

Rural buses can be challenging.  Often enough, they veer from the Google Maps route, almost invariably to find a toilet somewhere. But I like bathroom breaks on long bus rides. Hell, I even encourage them.

What’s annoying is that it’s usually unannounced. So when it does leave the route, all you can do is hope its for a pitstop. You never know if you’re really on the wrong bus, and this is slightly traumatizing. Especially when in more secluded areas, I often consider abandoning ship like I’m in danger.

I think this highlights the anxieties caused by technological realism more than anything else, and am thankful whenever in such a situation. It also resoundingly rings of First World Problems, which I lament.

Anyway, I made it to the bus stop without much more than a scrape.

Almost to the Starting Line

From there, it was a 20 minute walk to the farm on a winding road up a densely forested mountain. Most of this was just that, but there was one property I encountered on the road that was terribly interesting. An overgrown, standalone structure with no neighboring buildings nearby, its presence was stark enough to warrant mention.

The property started with a concrete gate opening up into a long driveway of sorts, at the end of which sat the monochrome, single story building just staring at you from a menacing distance. I didn’t bother taking a closer look because the gate was closed and I’m no trespasser, but color me intrigued. A mysterious fixer-upper to be reckoned with, for sure, though not for the faint of heart.

As I approached the end of my ascent, the forest opened up to overlook a spectacular valley. It was vibrantly green, and stretched in two directions for great distances. On the slopes, there stood a few scattered buildings, below which the land had been well-shaped into various farm plots. This was more than I expected, and I reasoned that this was more a village of akiya than a single unit. This was correct, and Byron, minutes away from me now, would soon explain.

Fujino Farmers

Byron pulled up in a kei truck quite fitting to the vibe I was picking up . It was  mud-splattered, with thick tree branches fitted to the truck bed forming racks and braces from which hung various tools. This rig would not have been entirely out of place on a Mad Max set.

When Byron clamored out of his rough and tumble chariot, I noticed that he himself subscribed to this aesthetic. He stands maybe 190 cm tall, and was sporting mutton chops and a handlebar mustache, flip flops, mud-stained shorts, and a dainty hat. Byron leaves an immediate larger-than-life impression.

Getting to Know Fujino

Byron’s personality is much the same. We quickly struck up conversation about more than just my trip to the farm, but he soon enough suggested we go on a tour. He took me around, explaining the history of the many features he had built by himself over the past decade. It quickly became apparent he’s been out there for a while, and it shows. There are numerous well-tended plots, retro-fitted buildings, custom built coops and shacks, and more. Kasamatsu Farm is what every little kid building a tree house hopes it will one day turn into, and then some.

It turns out, Kasamatsu Farm is built on a village, and that story is where things momentarily take a dark turn. Long ago, the land the farm stands on was a happy little village of 9 or so families, living in a communal fashion. One fated evening, however, a member of that community accidentally started a fire and burned down most of the community. This didn’t result in any deaths, but it did dissolve the community dissolution and get him ostracized. As a result, the firestarter became the regent of the tarnished land and buildings, which stood vacant for years until Byron came by and picked them up.

Step Back For a Moment and Consider

There are some lessons here, and not the “don’t burn down your village” kind. Along with the rest of the world, Japan is talented at dishing out scarlet letters. Often, modern culture values pristine, unadulterated people and products above all else, including function, resulting in much wasted potential. So much of what could be is never achieved simply because the constituent parts are not deemed “pure” enough. Call it rehabilitation, forgiveness, sustainability, or whatever, its feasible that our lives individually and collectively could be improved to a yet-unmeasurable extent if only we leveraged the resources right in front of us but which lie unused for being perceived as impure.

Regarding Japanese real estate, this is particularly true. The properties in Japan that are deemed suitable for consumption must meet a wide range of criteria lest they fall into obscurity. While most of these criteria are very important indeed, frequently there are also applied criteria that are more arbitrary. This results in otherwise quality properties being effectively disappeared. Our goal with Akiya & Inaka is to re-engage the public with those properties and communities which currently persist only invisibly due to an overzealous status quo. Check out our services if you’d like to explore that.

Pitching in to Build the Fujino House

Byron showed me around the house I would be contributing to, the vegetable gardens he tends to, the chicken coops he’s built, and much more.

Part of the charm of Byron’s place in Fujino is that if you simply engage with it, you’ll find things for all tastes. I’ve worked with permaculture establishments before, and while they have all been impressive, Byron’s takes the cake. The property is massive, well developed, and sustainable to boot. It is a powerful example of what can be accomplished thinking outside of the box.

After the tour, we wrapped back around to the house being built to get down to work with 2 other helpers. That day, it meant mixing equal parts sand, clay, and straw with our feet, 530 liters at a time.

Making cob

Learning the Ways of Our Ancestors

This is a more complicated process than you might think. The clay must be laid out on a large tarp on top of which the sand is distributed. This gets stomped over by the 4 of us for 20 minutes, and then the mixture is flipped by hauling the tarp over itself. Do this 3ish times, then add a few bushels of straw, and you’ll have some very nice earthen plaster for tsuchikabe, or cob walls.

Once we finished this, we placed the mixture in buckets, and hauled them over to the application site. This was only 10 meters away, but cob is pretty heavy and we had more than a kiloliter of it.

Upon relocating our arsenal of mud, the real work of creating the walls began. As did my education in how humans have built stuff for thousands of years. Fortunately, t’s a pretty simple process at its core. Secure wooden stakes in the ground, thread wood or bamboo through them, apply the cob, let dry, repeat. We mostly focused on the application part.

A Hard Day’s Work

After a few hours of this, the sun was beating down on us and our stomachs were empty. We called it a day and made our way to the river to swim and relax, stopping at a local burger joint on the way. Just the burgers sounded good, but add a river to that and I was excited. There’s nothing like a dirty meal at the end of a dirty day.

Riverside, we lounged about in the sylvan sun, talking about nothing in particular while enjoying our meals. Once we finished eating, we reveled in the cool current washing away the filth. This was extremly welcome as a considerable amount of dirt had accrued on our arms and legs. Building a mud house, as our ancestors did many thousands of years ago up until only recently, is a pretty gnarly task. I highly recommend it!

Making cob walls

The Benefits of Rural Farm Life in Fujino and Elsewhere

Kasamatsu Farms is an incredible place. It offers so very much in terms of experience, learning, camaraderie that I can’t gush about it. Through booking concert tours, working on festivals, and running a tourism company, I’ve got an OK idea of what the general idea of R&R is. Something involving beachside cocktails, Michelin-starred meals, and fashionable detoxes, I imagine. However, it all increasingly strikes me as an individualistic escapist retreat into oblivion.

Kasamatsu Farms is the anti-thesis of all that. With Byron, his family, and community in Fujino, you are exposed to something special, truly alternative. Visiting Fujino is not a “weekend” retreat, but a learning experience you can take with you where ever you go.

Lunch at Fujino river

The End, for Now

Does that makes sense in the modern age of interconnectivity? Being always on, unreasonable deadlines that must be met, etc. Human interaction is a stressor no matter what, business or personal,  such that “rest and relaxation” has a notably distant, lonely quality.

To my knowledge, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a travel ad campaign along the lines of “work and get dirty with strangers to build something cool!” But in these coronatimes of social distancing, frugality, broken systems, and no convincing hard evidence that suggests this will end any time soon, I’m starting to suspect that the current definition of luxury is going to evolve a bit, if not be upended entirely, in response to these new challenges we’re faced with.

The above is one example of how rural communities and vacant properties can help address the crisis of modernity. There were no cocktails but cheap beer; no Michelin Stars but local food; no detoxes but a whole lot of sweat; leisure, but only followed by pretty extensive physical exhaustion. And, above all, no closed spaces or dense crowds, but expansive fields, cool wind, running water, and a few strangers from all walks of life coming together to build a sustainable houses on land that was previously given up on.

To me, that sounds like just the sort of positive action required to build a better future. Call me hopeful.